Artist Guglielmo Castelli’s Poetic and Kafkaesque Childhood Reveries

In his exhibition at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice, the Italian artist channels the complex feelings and foreboding that are part of childhood.

Guglielmo Castelli, 2024. Photo: AfterlightImage

In his new exhibition, the Italian artist Guglielmo Castelli conjures frightful stories that are Kafkaesque in their anxiety, rife with menacing neighbors and unspoken threats. The works allude to a solitary, indoor childhood. “This is the most intimate show I’ve done, and it connects to my strict upbringing and education. I don’t presume people will see that,” he said. “The work is not meant to be a mirror, but a chance to remember those moments when we think we see something under our beds or in very black shadows.”

Castelli derived his exhibition’s title, Improving Songs for Anxious Children”, from a bizarre 1913 children’s book he chanced upon. “I was in New York for the opening of my show at Mendes Wood,” he recounted. “So much of my work is tied to literature. So, I visited the New York Public Library and came across this amazingly strange book, Improving Songs for Anxious Children. It was a book of lullabies meant to correct children’s behavior and such an odd mix of being educational and quite creepy.”

a painting by Guglielmo Castelli of a marionette-like figure in white, with a string attached to a cabinet door

Guglielmo Castelli, the nightingale (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

This strange alignment of play and authority struck a chord with Castelli, who is known for his melancholic paintings that meld a reveries-like beauty with darker insinuations of violence and despair. “The book is from the point of view of adults—there’s nothing about the children’s perspective,” he said. “I knew that feeling. In adulthood, too, people can have many expectations that you become one type of person or behave a certain way in adulthood.”  

Castelli’s exhibition is on view at the Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice through July 17. This show, curated by Milovan Farronato, is an inflection point for Castelli. The Turin-born artist’s profile has steadily been rising on the international stage following a spate of buzzed-about exhibitions. His works are also on view in a solo exhibition at Villa Medici in Rome. Last year, he opened  “A Lover’s Discourse,” at the Aspen Museum in Colorado. “Demonios Familiares” with Mendes Wood in 2023 (São Paulo, New York, Brussels, Paris) and “A Knife With No Blade, Missing Its Handle” at Rodeo Gallery in London in 2022–2023 both drew critical praise (he is represented by both galleries).

Guglielmo Castelli, body of prey (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Guglielmo Castelli, body of prey (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Castelli does not necessarily fit the mold of the next hot, young artist. His artworks are deliberate, drawn from art historical traditions and the themes. The world of childhood, with its frights and fantasies, is his recurrent fascination. “Kafka wrote about the newness and innocence of childhood, Childhood is the first time that you discover yourself, your body, and the bodies of others,” Castelli explained. “For this exhibition, I wanted to create a kind of classroom filled with characters. I have a background in theater, and I manage my canvases and exhibitions very much in that way. As a set designer, one tries to collect elements—objects—with the idea of the movement that will take place around these works. For me, the exhibition is another scene to stage.”

a harlequin-like figure holds a frame-like trapezoid against a brown background

Guglielmo Castelli, The minimum labyrinth (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Castelli (b. 1987) assiduously draws before a new body of work begins, experimenting with the imagery he will translate into painting and mixed-media works. Every inch of his work is a considered decision. Castelli paints in thin veils of color, made by mixing turpentine oil and water—creating “an impossible relationship” in his words. The freedom comes into his work through this unlikely union, which adds an element of chance to his compositions. Since his canvases dry slowly, he often begins the work horizontally. “In those moments,” he explained, “I’m anxious and childlike.

Installation view of "Improving Songs for Anxious Children” curated by Milovan Farronato on view at the Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice.

Installation view of “Improving Songs for Anxious Children” at the Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice.

Often his bodies of work revolve around a certain palette—here a deep and dusty world of blues, blacks, greens, and browns. In its subject matter, “Improving Songs for Anxious Children” revolves around the imagined story of a child who has been left at home, a foreboding sense of danger lurking in the work’s shadowy corners. Ominous characters appear, like a magician-like figure who manipulates a marionette. Meanwhile, apples and onions—the staples of a home pantry—appear in a mixed media work. The works themselves are sometimes intermixed with glass, ceramics, and lace.

a pair of green knit shorts with cut out paper figures

Guglielmo Castelli, Of aggression and possession (2024). Courtesy of the artist.

The figures in Castelli’s works are ambiguous. In the nightingale, a marionette-like figure in white stands atop a kitchen table, a string connecting the figure to a kitchen pantry door. The marionette seems the size of a child rather than a toy and at once sentient and lifeless—the figure’s legs are sturdy, but its head seems to fall loosely to one side. “I manage the bodies like a landscape—I don’t worry too much about gender. It’s a piece of flesh. Instead, I would say my bodies are landscapes, with layers of history, a place where for sure something has happened,” he explained.

In part, Castelli attributes his slow, highly considered artworks to the city Turin. “I lived in Berlin for a time. There were absolutely no figurative painters working around me,” he said. “I loved Berlin because it put me in a very uncomfortable zone—I needed to figure out how to do my work. I eventually decided to return to Italy. Turin defines me in a good way. One side of the city is all about Arte Povera, but at the same time, the city is very metaphysical. In some ways, I am a really provincial person. To be a painter I need to do the painting. I work from seven in the morning and stay in the studio until six at night. The rhythm of the city lets me do that. In some sense, the work is very much part of the strictness I knew as a child.” 

a magician character hovers over a marionette that dances over a cup of spilled water

Guglielmo Castelli, Sempre aperto teatro (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

Literature is Castelli’s most powerful muse, however, and has been for a long time. “I have always had a very strong relationship between words and images—artworks, like words, can create an imaginary world. The narrative process of a story improves my narrative process as a painter,” he said. “I have to have a script. I have a precise approach where I create a kind of skeleton or genealogy between my works. I’d say that storytelling even shapes the relationship between all the media I use from painting and maquettes to drawings.” What story is next to tell? Castelli isn’t sharing yet, but he does say he’s been reading a lot of American writers. He’s currently rereading American Pastoral and “a lot of Faulkner and Toni Morrison.”  

When asked what his aspirations for the current exhibition are, he returns to literature. “Samuel Beckett said ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,’” he said. “I hope I fail better.”

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